Key To The Understanding Of The Scriptures


(3) How To Interpret The Bible

It Means What It Says.

Though the Bible is profound in its teaching, it is written in language capable of being understood. To this proposition all will agree. But suppose attention was directed to the following statements:

"This same Jesus which ascended into heaven, shall so come in like manner as he ascended into heaven" (Acts 1:11);

"And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father, David; and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:32).

"Yea, all kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall serve him; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth" (Ps. 72:8, 11);

"for He shall reign in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem" (Isa.24:23).

"In that day, the Lord shall be king over all the earth" (Zech. 14:9),

for "the Kingdoms of this world become the Kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).

And suppose, on the reading of these statements, the remark was made, "It seems plain from this that Christ is coming to earth again, and that on his return, he will set aside all existing rule upon the earth and reign personally in Jerusalem as universal king" -- what answer would be given? It is not a matter of surmise. It is supplied by thousands of cases of actual experience. "Oh! No such thing!" is the instant response;

"What the prophet says is spiritual in its import. Jerusalem means the Church, and the coming of Christ again to reign means that the time is coming when he will be supreme in the hearts and affections of men."

This method of interpretation -- which is quite a common one -- is untenable. The Bible tells its message in a direct and sensible way, going at once to its work without any scholastic preliminaries, taking it for granted that certain words represent certain ideas, and using those words in their current significance. Take a prophecy:

"I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours, and I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it, and I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you; and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste" (Lev. 26:31-33).

"And thou shaft become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee (the Jews)" (Deut. 28:37).

There is no dispute about the mode in which this has been fulfilled.

The sublimest spiritualism is bound to recognise that the subject of these words is the literal nation of Israel and their land, and that, in fulfilment of the prediction, the real Israelites were driven from their real, literal land, which became really and literally desolate, and that Israel became a literal byword and reproach throughout the earth. This being so, on what principle are we to reject a literal construction of the following:

"I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and ONE KING shall be king to them all" (Ezek. 37:21-22).

It is usual, with this and other similar predictions of a future restoration of Israel and their reinstatement as a great people under the Messiah, to contend that they refer to the future glory and extension of the church. But such an interpretation will never be maintained in the face of fulfilled prophecy by a truly reflecting mind. The restoration of the Jews to Palestine, and the emergence of the nation of Israel in recent years, illustrates how literally these words are to be understood.

Take another prophecy:

"But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto Me that is to be ruler In Israel" (Micah 5:2).

How was this fulfilled? Turn to Matthew 2:1:

"Now Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king."

The fulfilment of the prophecy was in exact accordance with a literal understanding of the words employed, as everyone is aware.

The Use Of Metaphor.

Figures of speech are also used in Scripture to garnish the literal. Thus the Messiah is described as "a stone," "a branch," "a shepherd" and so forth. Both metaphor and literal speech have their functions, but each is so distinct from the other that ordinary discrimination can recognise and separate them, though mixed in the same sentence. This will be evident on a little reflection.

We use metaphor in common speech without causing obscurity. We are never at a loss to perceive the metaphor when it is employed, and to understand its meaning, nor do we confuse the metaphor with the literal. When we talk of tyrants "trampling the rights of their subjects under their feet," we mix the literal with high metaphor; but no one is in danger of supposing that rights are literal substances that can be crushed to pieces under trampling feet. When we say, "he carried a high head," we do not mean a height that can be measured by the pocket rule; a "black look" has nothing to do with colour; "hard times" cannot be broken with a hammer. These are well understood metaphors beyond the danger of misconstruction. But suppose we say, "The Jewish nation is to be restored," we use a style of language in which there is no metaphor. We speak plainly of literal things, and instinctively understand them in a literal sense.

Now with regard to the Bible, it will be found that, in the main, this is the character of its composition. It is not a revelation of words but of ideas, and hence everything in its language.

is subordinated to the purpose of imparting the ideas. The peculiarities of human speech are conformed to in the various particulars already mentioned. For instance, a metaphor is used in Deuteronomy 4:20: "The Lord hath brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt." Here Egypt is metaphorically spoken of as an "iron furnace." In Isaiah 8:7-8 the power of Assyria is likened to "the waters of a river." Other examples could be given but these are sufficient to illustrate the metaphorical element in Scripture. It is a very different thing from the gratuitous and indiscriminating rule of interpretation which, by a process called "spiritualising," obliterates almost every original feature in the Bible, making the Word of God of none effect.

Metaphors enrich the language of Scripture with the beauty of their hidden meaning, and many interesting and profitable hours can be spent in searching out their significance. As an example Isaiah 11:1 refers to Jesus as a "Branch" that would grow out of the roots of the house of David. According to the Hebraist, Parkhurst, the original word (Nehtzer) implies, "A plant, sucker, or young tree springing from the old root, and reserved or preserved when the tree is cut down." What an apt illustration to describe Jesus. He came at a time when Jewry was spiritually dead, but in him the hope of Israel sprang forth to new life. Christianity was established, to flourish even when the old Jewish tree had been cut down in the destruction of the Jewish State by Rome in A.D. 70.

The Use of Symbol.

In the Bible, symbols are often employed in what may be called political prophecy. In this case, events are represented in Hieroglyph. A beast is put for an empire, horns for kings, waters for people, rivers for nations, and so forth. Symbols can always be identified where they occur, and are always explicable on certain rules supplied by the context. The literal always remains the basis. The elementary principles of divine truth are communicated literally, whilst its deeper aspects are elaborated and illustrated metaphorically and symbolically. The one is the step to the other, and before the latter can be understood, we must understand the clear, literal teaching of the Bible. It is the alphabet of spiritual things, and the mind, established on this sound foundation, will be prepared to ascend to the comprehension of those deeper things of God which are concealed in enigmas, for the study of those who delight to search out His mind. Scattered throughout the Scriptures are sufficient interpretations of symbols so as to intelligently explain them (see, for example, Daniel 8:20, Daniel 7:24; Revelation 1:20; Jeremiah 1:11-15, etc.). Thus the Bible becomes its own interpreter to the one who is prepared to read and study it.


  1. There is no substitute for the Bible itself. It is its own interpreter and should be carefully and consistently read to be properly understood. Its teaching is the manna of life, and is alone capable of successfully guiding men and women along the path that leads to salvation. We therefore recommend the Bible Companion for an admirable plan of daily readings. If the system of reading there laid down is followed, the old Testament will be covered once, and the New twice in the course of a year. A free copy will be sent on application.
  2. A good Concordance is of great assistance in ascertaining the position of any given passage of Scripture. We recommend Strong's, Young's or Cruden's in that order, with particular emphasis on the first two.
  3. A good Bible Dictionary is helpful. Unger's is recommended, though we do not endorse all that is contained therein by any means. In fact, extreme care needs to be taken in the use of these books, as false ideas are by no means rare in their articles. The Dictionary is mainly helpful for historical, geographical, and archaeological information.
  4. A competent exposition, Elpis Israel (meaning "the Hope of Israel") is recommended as being sound and helpful. Christendom Astray from the Bible (from which the above study has been adapted) is also highly recommended.


  1. How must the main contents of the Bible be understood?
  2. What is occasionally used in Scripture to garnish the literal record.
  3. Name three figurative expressions that are used to describe the Messiah of Israel.
  4. Which symbols are used in political prophecy as recorded in the Bible?

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